Michigan State Basketball: Who's to Blame for Sweet 16 Flop Against Duke?
The journey is abruptly over for a Michigan State squad that had its sights set on the Final Four. The Spartans couldn't keep up with Duke in the second half of a highly anticipated Sweet 16 showdown Friday evening in Indianapolis.
The fellas from East Lansing exited the tournament to the tune of a 71-61 defeat.
For the third time since 2008, Tom Izzo's team was stopped short in the Sweet 16. Third-seeded Michigan State managed to rough up Memphis in the round of 32, setting the stage for a prime time showdown between perennial powers and premier coaches.
Second-seeded Duke moves on to an Elite Eight collision with overall No. 1 Louisville on Easter Sunday. Meanwhile, Michigan State must pick up the pieces and take a look in the mirror.
The Spartans enjoyed yet another strong season under Izzo, but there's blame to go around after a disheartening loss to Duke. Here a look at individuals who struggled to answer the Blue Devils' efforts in Indy.
Gary Harris Never Found a Rhythm
The highly touted freshman guard failed to follow up a memorable 23-point output against Memphis with a comparable performance. Harris hit only two-of-11 shot attempts from the floor and came up empty from beyond the arc.
The 6'4" Indiana product poured in six three-pointers during tournament victories over Valparaiso and Memphis, but he couldn't muster many open looks along the perimeter against Duke. Harris missed each of his three long-distance attempts and appeared physically exhausted during the game's latter stages.
He also had a difficult time contending with Blue Devils senior Seth Curry, who scored 29 points. The veteran took his rookie counterpart to school throughout much of the matchup.
Duke applied plenty of defensive physicality against Harris, wearing him down with dogged pursuit. His six points and four rebounds fell far shy of what Michigan State required from its young playmaker.
Keith Appling Was Unable to Carry Offensive Load
Appling, the Spartans' leading scorer, suffered a shoulder injury against Memphis in the round of 32. After some initial concern about the severity of his ailment, Appling was cleared to compete against Duke.
The junior guard played well but wasn't able to pick up the slack for a sputtering Michigan State offensive attack. With Harris mired in an ill-timed shooting slump, the Spartans needed Appling to take control.
He struggled to gain routine separation from the Blue Devils' smothering defense and seemed far too indecisive at crucial moments.
When Appling did gain possession of the ball, the veteran was a tad erratic. He finished third on the team with nine shot attempts and suffered four of the Spartans' 10 turnovers.
Appling never seemed to settle in against Duke, a trait shared by a number of his Michigan State teammates Friday night. Assuming Appling returns to East Lansing for his senior season, he will provide the program with one of the most experienced guards in Big Ten competition.
Derrick Nix Failed to Replicate Recent Offensive Success
Don't get me wrong, Derrick Nix was his usual high-energy self in the Sweet 16 matchup. He pulled down nine rebounds, including a game-high four offensive boards.
The Spartans entered this contest facing a frontcourt size mismatch, but Nix did his best to contend with Blue Devils big men Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly. The 6'9" forward's physicality was prevalent, but his recent spike in point production ended in Indianapolis.
Nix netted 23 points and pulled down 15 rebounds in Michigan State's tournament-opening victory over Valparaiso. He entered the Spartans' date with Duke averaging 18 points per game in the past three contests.
On Friday night, he converted only three-of-10 shot attempts for nine points. The senior was blocked by Blue Devils center Ryan Kelly with under nine minutes remaining in the first half, setting up a fast-break layup for freshman Rasheed Sulaimon.
That bucket gave Duke its first double-digit advantage of the game and instantly shifted momentum.
Tom Izzo Allowed Coach K to Dictate Game
Izzo is a surefire Hall of Famer, a national champion and a legendary figure in East Lansing. Mike Krzyzewski is the greatest college basketball coach to grace a court.
Coach K continues to own a significant edge over Izzo, leading their lifetime series, 8-1. This was the second time Duke eliminated an Izzo-led Spartans squad in the NCAA tournament (1999 Final Four).
Michigan State knocked off the Blue Devils in the 2005 Sweet 16, but Duke left little doubt about who's currently the superior team with Friday night's performance. The Spartans were swept up in Duke's game plan, uncharacteristically attempting to match three-point tries along the way.
Duke's half-court set shredded Michigan State, resulting in six three-pointers for Seth Curry and 26 free-throw attempts (the Blue Devils buried 24 of the those). Izzo's players displayed the standard Spartan effort but eventually fell victim to a well-executed superior strategy implemented by Krzyzewski's coaching staff.
Izzo is now 7-4 in the Sweet 16.